Gender is defined as the behavioural, cultural, or psychological traits typically associated with one sex. It is something which is taught very early in the everyday life to everyone. So, gender is important in forming our identities, e.g. in forming how we see us and how other can see us.
We have various identities and gender is one of the first aspect that a child becomes conscious very early in his (her) development. Furthermore, this conscious of him (her) self will be the basis of the building up of the coherence of his (her) identity. Gender plays an important role in the construction of identity especially during the first years of the life. We will study how it takes place before the birth of the child, then the force of the stereotypes in this process of identity’s building and then the consequences on the academic achievement.
Any child is born with physical characteristics, male or female. Depending of these, differences in child-caring practices of parents happen, based on this genetic evidence. Depending of the cultural context in which the baby is born, the behaviour of parents can be different: The colour of the bedroom, the toys, the clothes, even the acts (tenderness…) will not be the same according to the child’s sex. Thus, each parent will project the things that they will do with their child: Doing shopping for the girls or playing football for the boys. This is known under the term “gender appropriate” and this is due to the force of stereotypes.
A stereotype is defined as “a simplified and probably exaggerated representations on the most common special characteristics associated with a category.” Even positively or negatively biased, the child will unconsciously integrate this projection and will be marked by these early projections from the environment.
As the child grows up, he (she) becomes more conscious of his (her) identity and he (she) will comply with the behaviour which is expected from him (her), e.g. to behave as a boy or as a girl. The child searches for certainty. Several authors studied the relationships between gender identities and gender development. According to them, most of the children can self-categorize themselves as male of female at two or three years of age. This self-perception would be refined until the age of five years (Kolberg).
For social scientists such as Bem, young children constructs their identity more on social and cultural factors than biological, precisely because of their youth and lack of knowledge. Francis observed that girls or boys adopts a socially appropriate behaviour expected from their gender but not all the children adopt this position as gender is only one element in the formation of the identity alongside ethnicity, social class…
Gender has also an impact on school achievements. For example, it was generally accepted before the 70s that girls were less performing in mathematics and in sciences than boys. In France, the entrance of girls in high scientific schools was even not permitted and girls themselves complied with these taken-for-granted assumptions. Nowadays, other stereotyped perceptions exist in opposition to the former one: Rates of success of girls are higher than the boys’ one because they would work more. Patricia Murphy and Jannette Elwood studied particularly this relation between gendered identity and school performance; they argued that specific male or female attitude is a result of the social interactions between the children and their parents, their peers and the schooling. They present three claims:
– The children arrive at school with a gendered identity, more socially than genetically constructed as above mentioned,
– The judgement of the teachers will amplify the children’s gendered perception of themselves,
– Children favoured some expressions, styles or representations of knowledge depending on their gender; interests differ and the school performances are affected accordingly.
These claims show the importance of social elements of gendered identity. Therefore, their influences decline when the child becomes an adult and stereotypes are questioned and challenged.
In conclusion, we can say that gender is important in the formation of identity in the very early years of life. Therefore, gendered identities are not only shaped by genetic factors but also and primarily by social and educational factors. The child is conditioned and influenced by his (her) parents’ behaviour toward him (her) as the child is looking for certainty. This influence, could be reinforces at school by the teachers’ attitude often based on stereotypes. So, social factors are important in explaining the formation of the identity.
Bem, S.L. (1974), ‘the measurement of psychological androgyny’, Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology; vol. 42, pp. 155-62
Bem, S.L. (1974), ‘Genital knowledge and gender constancy in pre-school children, Child Development; vol. 42, pp. 155-62
Francis, B. (1998), ‘Oppositional positions: children(s construction of gender in talk and role plays based on adult occupation’, Educational Research, vol. 40, no.1, PP.31-43.
Gove, J. and Watt, S. (2004), ‘Identity and Gender’ in Woodward, K. (ed.) Questioning Identity: Gender, Class, Ethnicity, London, Routledge/ the Open University.